By Omar Mosleh - April 1, 2020
Andria Spindel was at her Toronto home participating in a video meeting on how to stop anti-Semitism when she heard a voice from her computer say “Sieg Heil.”
The executive director of the Canadian Antisemitism Education Foundation says she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“It was otherworldly. I don't know how to describe it,” Spindel said. “For a moment there, I actually couldn’t think where I was. This wasn’t my webinar. Where was I? What had happened?
“It was like Nazis had walked into your living room.”
It’s unclear how someone might have infiltrated the foundation’s meeting on the Zoom video-conferencing web platform. The link to access the meeting had been sent to the group’s master list, which includes about 3,500 people and may have been posted on social media. What is clear to Spindel is that people are exploiting technology to spread hate, and with so many people working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom has become a popular target.
Jewish organizations have also proven to be a target of what is being referred to as “Zoombombing,” in which malicious individuals crash video conferences to spread hateful and offensive content. In just the past week, the BBC, Jewish News Syndicate and news site Forward.com have all reported separate incidents of Jewish organizations’ Zoom meetings being disrupted by uninvited guests spreading anti-Semitic content.
Spindel said it highlights an urgent need for the company to address security concerns and for organizations and individuals who may not be technologically savvy to make sure they’re not ignoring any security vulnerabilities.
It was Monday when Spindel was hosting the web seminar, which had the theme of anti-Semitism as a virus that needs to be stamped out. Suddenly, she noticed rude and misogynistic comments in the chat channel. She started hearing strange background noises and marching music. Then the N-word flashed across the screen.
“That's when I realized immediately something terrible is happening … and then, within seconds, you hear yelling, and screaming and the screen changing and somebody says ‘Sieg Heil.’”
She said she watched in horror as other participants of the web seminar reacted in shock.
“I actually thought I heard crying,” Spindel said.
She wasn’t able to immediately stop the meeting, because that function had been assigned to the guest speaker. They were eventually able to end the meeting, which had about 45 people participating.
But the damage was done. There was concern the infiltrators might have been able to steal email lists and contacts, something Spindel says a security expert has told her is possible, but unlikely.
“Do these people know who you are? ... You have to sit back and say, ‘Oh my God, it's just on my screen.’”
Retrospectively, she said the incident highlighted the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the world and the need for her organization to continue the work that it does.
Michael Mostyn, the CEO of Jewish advocacy group B’nai Brith Canada, said the organization continues to see a rise in anti-Semitism from year to year, although there was a bit of an anomaly in 2018.
Emerging forms of technology, such as social media platforms, offer those who spread hate anonymity and extended reach, Mostyn said. The crashing of a video-conferencing application such as Zoom is just another way that anti-Semitism is adapting in 2020, he added.
“It’s the morphing of anti-Semitism to modern forms of communication. … Unfortunately, those bigots and hatemongers are taking advantage of the situation and are using it to spread hate.”
Mostyn said anti-Semitism is often deeply rooted in conspiracy theories. Anti-Semitic tropes frequently portray Jewish people as a shadowy cabal with undue influence over the world. Misinformation about the source and spread of COVID-19 has been rife during the coronavirus pandemic, and anti-Semitism has been a factor, Mostyn said.
“The Jewish community has been tied into many of these conspiracy theories with respect to COVID-19,” he said.
Zoom has published several blog posts since March 20 outlining privacy and security best practices, with one titled “Keep the party crashers from crashing your Zoom event.”
In a statement, the company said it has made recent changes to tighten security, such as updating the default screen sharing settings for education users so teachers are the only ones who can share content by default. They also encouraged users to review their security settings.
“We are deeply upset to hear about the incidents involving this type of attack. We take the security of Zoom meetings seriously and for those hosting large, public group meetings, we strongly encourage hosts to review their settings, confirm that only the host can share their screen, and utilize features like host mute controls and ‘Waiting Room,’” a Zoom spokesperson said.
Spindel said the incident made her research the application to avoid similar incidents in the future. She recommends organizations using Zoom for their meetings look at disabling screen sharing, assign more than one moderator and reconsider having an open chat room that anyone can join.
She added that next week is Passover and many families will be holding virtual gatherings.
“This could be so upsetting, you’re sitting at your family dining room table by yourself … and this suddenly happens,” Spindel said. “So everybody needs to take precautions.”
Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star.
This article was originally published on The Star on April 1, 2020, and can be viewed on their site by clicking here.